“Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the Gods. . . So let us celebrate the struggle!” Swahili Warrior Song. And surely the people of Africa, we learned first hand, struggle in a way that is almost incomprehensible.
After eight fantastic months of humanitarian work in South Africa and Botswana, we returned home to America with sobering thoughts of these wonderful people — and with many marvelous memories of working with them and of living in their beautiful land.
It has been written that Africa liberates the mind and, in a mysterious way, the continent certainly does heighten the senses. During our time there, we constantly saw the natural, bounteous beauty of this immense place juxtaposed against the intense sadness caused by poverty, crime, and disease. It is indeed a continent of contrasts.
The Africans themselves, meanwhile, are a resilient people; they have to be to survive.
The capital city of South Africa, Johannesburg, is a city that captures all of this. It is said to be the city with the largest urban forest in the world. Once a grassland, now millions of trees add much beauty to the city, especially the jacarandas with their lovely lavender blossoms in the spring (our fall). We often walked to a nearby park that reminded us of a Monet painting with beautiful trees arching over the walkway. Nearly every day, glorious cloud formations overhead are like dense, white lambs wool resting on a blanket of pale blue. Much of this kind of beauty we found to be overwhelming.
Seeing the rich, rolling farmland of South Africa made it seem small wonder that the Dutch and the English settled here in the 1700’s and 1800’s – that they came and stayed. Some have called South Africa “the garden spot of the world.”Meanwhile, we learned that, if the opportunity arose, over 75 percent of South African blacks would emigrate to America (their #1 choice of the countries in the world where they might hope to live one day).
During a lunch break in our work there, we met and talked with two brothers, ages 14 and 12, who walked by our office each day. They attended one of the better Catholic schools in the city. They wore spiffy school uniforms and were definitely well-educated and “sharp” young men.
The older of the two said to us, “We see lots of American movies; is that what America is really like?”
We wish we could explain to the whole world, as we did to those two boys, that very little of what America is like is reflected in much of the “garbage” we export to other countries – and to our own people — in the way of films. We told them, “No, that’s not what America is like,” and they replied, “We didn’t really think so.”
Much of our welfare/humanitarian work involved helping people get jobs and/or improve their work-related skills, as well as efforts helping an orphanage run by the Salvation Army.
When we had some time off, we took the opportunity to see what we could of the country, including a trip to the beautiful city of Cape Town.One of our most delightful experiences was a day on safari in Kruger National Park. A safari has been referred to as a journey through a zoo without bars. We would define it more as trip through an immense tract of land set aside to protect Africa’s incredible wildlife.
Named for the famous Dutch settler, Paul Kruger, the park is the size of the state of Rhode Island and is totally fenced. Inside that protected area, nearly every wild animal indigenous to South Africa roams freely and can be observed in their wild habitats by visitors from around the world.
Other popular game reserves include Pilanesburg, the closest to Johannesburg, and several others near Cape Town.
During our Easter weekend visit to Kruger (about 5 hours east of Jo’burg), we had to leave the town of Nelspruit at 4 a.m. in a heavy rain storm to drive an hour and a half to the gate, then queue at the entrance along with several hundred cars. Once inside the park, we were thrilled to drive along the well-maintained roads in what we called “poop loops” because of all the animal droppings along the way.
Within a short time, we saw a big brown elephant about ten feet off the side of the road feeding in some dense bush, several giraffes gnawing on nearby trees, herds of zebra and wildebeests grazing together along with a hippo, a wart hog, and even a family of baboons (15-20 of them) that crossed the road right in front of our car. The old “papa” of the clan lumbered along behind the mamas and babies, none of them in any hurry at all.
We drove off on one of the many dirt roads to see the largest baobab tree in this part of Africa. The baobab is also known as the monkey bread tree. It has an enormous trunk, sometimes measuring 36 feet or more in diameter and can grow to 75 feet in height. Baobabs are among the oldest trees in the world, living 2,000 years or more. They have been revered for centuries by the African people.
There is simply something unbelievable about seeing and being close to the some of the most exotic wild animals in the world. Another reserve we visited was the delightful Elephant Sanctuary at Hartebeesport just north of Johannesburg. Here we had the fun of taking an elephant for a walk – if you can imagine leading an elephant around by his or her trunk. At this place we came to appreciate how these huge creatures live and how they react so gently with humans.
All in all, we feel blessed beyond measure to have had this almost surreal, yet wonderful opportunity to serve in a land so far away, among a people whose lives are so much different from our own. We feel we did some good and are grateful to feel we have touched many lives for the better. We also feel blessed to have seen a land of such great beauty, and we will always count this experience as one of the greatest and most rewarding of our lives.